The 71st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards were a dicey and unpredictable affair, but the voters salvaged the night with their surprising choices.

By Kristen Baldwin
September 23, 2019 at 12:20 AM EDT

“It’s the Emmys but it’s also Fox, so… eh.” TV’s biggest awards rotate between the Big Four networks, and normally it doesn’t make much of a difference to us, the viewers, about which broadcaster is putting on the show. But as commentator and “your Sherpa through the lulls” Thomas Lennon noted early on in the three-hour ceremony, the 71st Annual Primetime Emmy Awards were a dicey and unpredictable affair — not only due to the many upsets, but because when it comes to awards show glamour, Fox is a little bit like the outcast cousin who doesn’t know which fork to use at dinner.

The opening sequence of this hostless ceremony encapsulated much of the overall vibe of the night. There was cheerful self-promotion (the first “man” to walk out on stage was arguably Fox’s biggest star, Homer Simpson), clumsy transitions (it took a few seconds too long for the audience, and viewers at home, to realize that black-ish star Anthony Anderson was jumping in to “save the Emmys” when Homer was crushed by a falling piano), and an ill-fitting attempt at gravitas (Emmy winner and former Fox star Bryan Cranston channeled his LBJ solemnity to deliver a tribute to the power of the medium: “Television has never been bigger, television has never mattered more, and television has never been this damn good”).

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

Once the “edgy” upstart network, Fox has now settled into its role as broadcast’s aging former rebel. Some of the producers’ decisions tonight felt very “I’m not a regular grandpa, I’m a cool grandpa,” like the often-incongruous transition music (Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti” as the Last Week Tonight writers walked to the stage? The Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” for Supporting Actor in a Limited Series winner Ben Whishaw?); hiring that nice boy from the Pitch Perfect movies (Adam DeVine) to perform a corny song-and-dance tribute to variety shows; and letting Hollywood-adjacent human holograms Kim Kardashian-West and Kendall Jenner present the Outstanding Reality Competition Program. (That last mistake was worth it, however, just to hear the audience laugh out loud at Kim’s implication that Keeping Up With the Kardashians features “real people being themselves.”)

As is becoming the norm with these hostless awards endeavors, presenters supplied much of the best comedy of the evening. Some of the bits inevitably flatlined (like, say, The Masked Singer judge Ken Jeong trying to make a TikTok video), but more of them delivered, especially when they aimed their sights on the industry itself. “What is a limited series, Bill?” Phoebe Waller-Bridge asked her co-presenter Bill Hader. “A limited series is a TV show that was canceled,” he answered, before handing out the award for “the most limited actor in a canceled series.” Maya Rudolph and Ike Barinholtz brought full commitment to their goofy Lasik surgery gag, struggling to read the TelePrompTer (“Here are the nimrods for dead ascot in a chocolate staircase!”) and mangling the names of the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy nominees with increasing absurdity.

Lennon, meanwhile, started out fine, offering innocuous one-liners (“Tonight, $14.99 a month HBO battles $12.99 a month Netflix”) and random fun facts (“Stack up Tony Shaloub’s Emmy statues and you get 62 inches — the height of the incomparable Ms. Rita Moreno!”). But as the night wore on, his jokes alternately got harsher (“The producers have asked me to give a special shout-out to any of our previous lead actress winners who are watching tonight from prison”) and weaker, his delivery losing energy and enthusiasm with each passing minute. (After bungling a line about the Emmys being “woke,” Lennon mumbled, “That’s why people don’t do this, because it sucks.”)

Perhaps we should thank the voters, then, for saving this Emmys from itself. Amidst all the awkwardness were some honest-to-God upsets and thrilling moments of victory. Fleabag steamrolling over Veep’s final season, taking home wins for Outstanding Lead Actress and Comedy Series over perennial winner Julia Louis-Dreyfus. (“I was told I would be up here alone,” Louis-Dreyfus joked later, during a “Farewell to Veep” presentation with the show’s entire cast.) Twenty-one-year-old Jharrel Jerome bringing the crowd to its feet with his win for When They See Us. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s repeat winner Alex Borstein segueing effortlessly from a joke about sweaty celebrity vaginas (“It’s like hot Bikram yoga in here. A lot of nervous… women”) to a stirring story about her grandmother surviving the Holocaust. Jodie Comer beating out her Killing Eve costar for the Lead Actress in a Drama win, and Ozark’s Julia Garner beating out every other actress on Game of Thrones in the Supporting Actress in a Drama category.

Of course, nothing could top the joy of watching Pose’s Billy Porter take the stage as the first openly gay man to win as Lead Actor in a Drama. “The category is love, y’all, love!” he bellowed to the cheering crowd. “We as artists are the people that get to change the molecular structure of the hearts and minds of the people that live on this planet.” It was a reminder, amid all the plugs for The Masked Singer and “the special [insert Fox show here] moments brought to you by the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 Plus,” that television can actually matter — just like Bryan Cranston told us at the beginning of the show. B-

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